June 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

“The Hummingbirds” by Robert Wooldridge

It’s rare that I connect with work from the same author for two EC months in a row, but “The Hummingbirds” immediately caught and held my attention this month.  There’s a breath-held quality to both halves of the piece that makes Sublime’s awe and the feeling of the hummingbirds infectious, but I’m not entirely sure that this story is delivering, yet, on its promise.  So this month, I’d like to discuss consistency in working to the strengths of a piece, and how it important it is to carry our strongest pieces of craft cohesively through to the end.

“The Hummingbirds” starts with a beautiful, hushed portrait: a girl kneeling in prayer before a robot, religiously convinced it will rise.  It’s a magnificent scene, trading both on that elegant juxtaposition of genres and excellent voice work that makes great use of an oral storytelling cadence and a refrain—it will rise—that evokes folktales and preaching equally.  The cornerstone of the first scene, though, is its immediate tactility: fine-pointed dust on fine-pointed knees, temperature, light through boards, breath, sound.  The author’s proven adept at using sensory detail, and “Hummingbirds” takes advantage of this strength with the prohibition against looking at George’s ATS.  With ears and smells and implication alone, those few paragraphs build up a slight narrative suspense and pay it off in a way that feels natural—and makes the awakening of the ATS feel significant and profound.

That same skill is deployed into the second scene, as the same kind of casually thoughtful detail as how tightly sprung the ATS is, and George’s preference for older models gives a round, real organicness to his side of the story, and welds Sublime’s fantasy-style tropes and George’s SF-style tropes together in a way that doesn’t make them feel separate or disjunct.

However, that’s a strength that’s not pulled all the way through the piece, with the same careful attention, and there are multiple places that shows as “Hummingbirds” continues to its conclusion.

The first major issue that merits attention in “Hummingbirds” is pacing.  While there are many stretches where the fairly unadorned dialogue works, or where narrating over information is a good strategy, there are spots in “Hummingbirds” where that dialogue could use context, another beat, or a slight transition into a new scene—or where it might be more effective to break up that information dump and provide the information in real time.  The end of the second scene is a prime example of both, as the information crucial to George’s mission arrives divorced of any emotional or character context, and then the dialogue around Sublime’s appointment as guide falls flat for me, left without context, body language, or transitions.  In a piece with fairly careful attention to detail elsewhere, the lack of it sticks out significantly here.

That carefully-evoked worldbuilding is also missed as the story goes on.  I do have an appreciation for the way “Hummingbirds” subverts the trope of “no one ever said she was beautiful”, but an equal request to be mindful of how the story portrays Sublime’s desire to dress more sexually.  It’s presuming she’s dressing to be found sexual by someone else, and there’s an entire worldview about women and men that suggests that is not just untrue 99% of the time, but troubling.  It also brings up issues of practical worldbuilding: If Sublime can work her will to make things true, then why wouldn’t someone just have called her pretty, or presented her with more revealing clothes?  This seems to be code for “I am a teenage girl”—but a piece of code that forgets teenage girls are people.

I’m also a little surprised that George, given his job, is so undiplomatic with Villareal and so judgmental about the colony’s culture.  With colonies across space, and an Earth that doesn’t acknowledge rank, there must be some notion of cultural drift and how politeness mechanisms can differ even in smaller, local regions.  As a technician/soldier in a support role, who might be deployed anywhere, his aggression and dismissal seem deeply counterproductive, if not an outright attempt to manufacture conflict that never quite pays off, and diminished my engagement with the piece.

It’s odd to see that base attitude toward religion internalized in Sublime’s worldview, as well.  If religious faith is how she lives, and she knows it gets things done in her world, why would George’s question about doctors insult her, why would she need his approval, and why would she feel as if there’s anything to prove?

Ultimately, though, the main issue that merits attention for me is that in the second half, “Hummingbirds” gets a little lost: The discrepancies in the worldbuilding, versus how we’re being told the monster was caused and how it can be solved, add up until what the story says is happening and what I as a reader can see happening are two very different things.  As above, the revelation that the entire problem is Sublime working her will on reality isn’t quite set up, and there’s no reason dispatching the troll should cause her to stop believing things, just…perhaps be a little more responsible about what she believes.  If anything, the power of her faith has been confirmed.

Ultimately, this leaves me unsure as to what to do with “Hummingbirds”.  While the worldbuilding and craft are evocative, it’s perhaps not saying what it thinks it’s saying, and the core concept—each event leading to each—could perhaps use some attention, so they form into a cohesive picture that leaves something learned or experienced for the reader as well as Sublime and George.

Best of luck with the piece!

–Leah Bobet

Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)

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